Left in Andover: Living simply in Gandhi’s shadow

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

While Dad had always managed to stash a certain amount of “junk” in the breezeway, in the tractor sheds and in our hayloft, when we got rid of our farm animals there was no holding him back from filling up the whole barn.

As a by-product of our book-collecting forays around the countryside, we quickly accumulated a wild assortment of old windows, antique wooden bean threshers, tools, furniture, beehives, building supplies, obsolete hand cultivators and other potentially useful objects that soon mixed it up in the back of our “Book Nook” emporium.

The Book Nook — and antiques — at Popplewood in the mid-1960s.

On sunny summer days in the 1960s, it fell to us kids to drag sample teaser items out onto the lawn to attract the attention of passers-by. The subtext was that everything we had brought home was useful – so, oh well, even if it never sold, it might come in handy some day. And the hunt for it all was fun, undeniable great family fun.

By 1978, when my parents quit-claimed Popplewood to me and my two siblings, we were also handed over the contents of the barn, which Dad prided himself upon, believing he had set us up for life.

His reasoning, rooted in Yankee thrift and a Depression-era mentality, proved flawed. Overwhelmed by all the stuff, the first thing we kids did was to get rid of it. Although we did not have much more money than Dad, to us the risk of drowning in it felt greater than the risk of not having all these supplies at our fingertips.

Some 40 years later, Marie Kondo has struck a similar chord, with her book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” which has thus far sold 10 million copies.

The term “voluntary simplicity” was coined in 1936 by temporary Vermonter Richard Gregg in his book “The Value of Voluntary Simplicity.”

Gregg felt that consumers, when wised up to their role as cogs in the capitalist wheel, would make the choice to live with less, discovering a greater and deeper value in fewer, but better-quality possessions. Not incidentally, Gregg diagnosed keeping-up-the-Jones materialism and economic inequality as the drivers of class warfare, environmental degradation, social unrest and, inevitably, violence.

A white-haired Richard Gregg with an unidentified younger man, lays out the foundation for his stone cabin, Forest Farm in Winhall in 1948.

Gregg, who died in 1974, was a Harvard graduate. He walked away from a career as a labor rights lawyer and the material goods that status afforded. In search of a more spiritual path, Gregg sailed for India in 1925, where he spent four years, including seven months with Mahatma Gandhi at his ashram, also accompanying him on the 240-mile Salt March to Dandi.

Of one interaction with Gandhi, Gregg writes, “I said it was easy for me to give up most things but that I had a greedy mind and wanted to keep my many books.”

Gandhi responded, “As long as you derive inner help and comfort from anything, you should keep it. If you were to give it up in a mood of self-sacrifice or out of a sense of stern duty, you would continue to want it back. …”

Gregg returned to America, where he published “The Power of Non-Violence” in 1934,  becoming the foremost theorist of Gandhi’s principle of non-violence to the West. (Martin Luther King Jr. cited this book and its author, with whom he carried on an extensive personal correspondence, as one of the greatest influencers on his thinking. In 1959, King penned the foreward for Gregg’s second edition.)

In his later years, drawing even more clearly the line between simple living and non-violence, Gregg came first to teach at The Putney School, and from there to homestead with Scott and Helen Nearing in nearby Winhall.

I’m with my father and brother and our farm truck at Popplewood in Andover in1957.

The Nearings dedicated to Richard a piece of their property for his own home. Included in my mother’s collection of photographs is one of the white haired Richard laying out the perimeters for his stone house in 1948. If my parents were indeed there onsite, Dad without doubt pitched in to help. The two men became close, admixing, as in the case of Dad’s relationship with Scott, serious political discussion with manual labor.

Richard maintained his Winhall cabin for many years after Scott and Helen decamped to Maine. Of Dad’s three trips in his old farm truck moving them to Maine, Helen rode shotgun on the first trip and Scott on the third. In 1983, Dad described the second trip:

“The second trip Richard Gregg accompanied me. He was a saint who had lived with Gandhi for some years, returned home to an unsuccessful experiment in communal living and finally retired to a stone cabin the Nearings built for him in a remote corner of ‘Forest Farms,’ where he spent a decade writing and meditating.

“Richard was a very distinguished man and I can still hear the counterman’s question, as we sat at the diner in Rochester, N.H., “What’ll you have, Pop?”

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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  1. Melody Reed says:

    Interesting!I’d never heard of Richard Gregg such a delightful cast of characters in your family’s history. 🙂

  2. Howard Ires says:

    Susan, these stories are WONDERFUL, I love them! keep up the good work!!!!

  3. Thank you, Susan. What a wonderful article. You have summed up the very things I treasure about my choice to live here, then brought in an experience of genuine history, with philosophy thrown in on top. Rare writing. I’m glad Cynthia and Shawn have given you a place for your voice to be shared.